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Enshitification and its consequences

I’ve noticed a recent phenomenon with many apps I use these days. The slow but gradual erosion of value as I see Ubers get more expensive, meals on DoorDash get more costly and arriving slower and more remarkably streaming services like Amazon Prime taking on ads to a subscription that used to previously not serve them for the excellent price of $14.99. Before I dwell further into why I think these things are happening and why we are continuously losing out as customers, it is pertinent to start at the beginning of a tech companies’ life-cycle and observe how the grow and then dominate their field.

Blitzscaling is an old-school startup strategy of burning as much cash as quickly as possible with the help of dedicated Venture Capitalists in order to gain significant market share in their industry. We can see examples of this in companies like Uber, Airbnb and DoorDash. In order to gain increasing market, share these services have to be good value propositions for customers so they can attract them. Corey Doctorow, a tech blogger, summarized this phenomenon well with the term enshitification, when any of these companies first starts their only chance of succeeding is to go above and beyond for their users by solving a key problem. For example, Uber came in 2009 and when first using it around that time, one realized how much more convenient and cheaper it was in comparison to taxis. Unlike taxis, Uber would find you instead of the other way around, the drivers are friendlier, the cars are cleaner and it did all of It wasn’t surprising just how quickly people flooded onto Uber. Eventually, once Uber garnered enough customers, it took that surplus value it was giving them and decided to cater to suppliers(drivers) in order to attract more of them and onto its service. Uber started handing out sign on bonuses for new joiners, they started giving cashback on fuel and discounts on car maintenance, they paid their drivers 80% of what the app made. The best aspect of it was Surge pricing. Anytime there was a pickup in demand drivers could well earn two times three times sometimes more. By cornering both sides of the market; demand and supply, Uber created a walled ecosystem that was difficult to break out of. This gave them the opportunity to capitalize by taking the surplus value it gave customers and drivers for themselves. This is enshitification.

Enshitification usually occurs as a company transition from privately owned to
publicly owned as founders with a vision get replaced with shareholders who want massive gains. In the long-term health of the business, they just want the business to earn quick money so that they can cash out their objectives which often boils down to how do we make the users pay up until the absolute limit of what they're willing to but, just not past it and then how do we pay the suppliers the absolute least that they're willing to take but, just not less than it. This is what enshitification looks like in practice and it all starts with tiering splitting the base service up into multiple tiers all at different price points. We see that in the Uber model with Uber XL, Uber Lux, Uber Black, etc. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a tiered service system, it's just the way these companies achieve this is much less about making the experience better for the people who are paying more but much more about just making it worse for the people who aren't. Uber isn't changing the pool of cars on the road to accommodate these tiers they're the same cars, the same people with the same training, but it's just now they're segregated in a way that each user pays the maximum they're willing to pay and the service provided is the bare minimum. Take Netflix, when it started it felt revolutionary, I can pay like $10 a month which is cheaper than an average movie ticket nowadays and get all of this for free, but then Netflix introduced 4K quality which instead of just being added to the base service became part of a separate tier now being charged at $15 a month then they actually went as far as to introduce adverts back into your movies after the whole deal about this being the way to watch movies without adverts and unless you upgrade to the middle subscription tier which is $13 you're going to get those adverts Netflix isn't even the worst offender to be honest at least their ad supported tier is cheaper than the normal tier, unlike Prime Video which made their original ad-free base tier infested with ads.

Subscriptions on their own can be fine. They can be a way to make services more accessible instead of having to frontload a big upfront cost. Also, subscriptions can be a way to force companies to continue to provide value and updates over a period of time, but the way that these big tech companies are using subscriptions now has meant that we're often not paying those monthly subscriptions instead of the bigger upfront costs. We're paying them both and you're actually getting a worse service now whilst paying for a subscription than you were originally for free. For example, the entire purpose of Amazon Prime was unlimited one-day deliveries so why is it that now we're also having to often pay to get the fastest delivery and for many products actually having to hit a minimum spend just to get that perk. This is how every online store has ever worked since the very beginning but without needing to pay a monthly fee. Furthermore, Amazon also employs dark patterns such as automatically suggesting the longer delivery time without you noticing, thus giving you a worse experience. More common examples of dark patterns are the commonplace difficulty of unsubscribing to a service as it feels like one has to jump through multiple hoops in order to even land at the right page to unsubscribe.

Small step regulations seem like a great start in organizing the mess enshitification creates. As I mentioned above, we can have simple regulations that enforce a streamlined method of unsubscribing from subscription services and altogether banning common dark patterns in general so that people aren’t preyed on for their neglectfulness or naivete.   Cory Doctorow believes that, “Our policy focus should be on minimizing the cost to users when these firms reach their expiry date: Enshrining rights like end-to-end would mean that no matter how autocannibalistic a zombie platform became, willing speakers and willing listeners would still connect with each other.” This quote is regarding social media platforms like Facebook who have also become increasingly enshitified, wherein advertisers and users are locked in with each other. Doctorow also emphasizes freedom of exit, which allows one to leave a sinking platform while still staying connected with their network of friends and family. Small actions that individuals can take are subscribing to services for shorter-periods of time like to watch a new show on Netflix and then unsubscribing, rotating out streaming services once a month or every couple of months to watch what you want instead of bundling all the streamers together just to get another version of cable, and more importantly being an advocate for policy changes that protect consumers in any way.  


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